Technically, you can take nice portraits with any camera and zero accessories – but if you want to level up your images, there are a few simple gear items you should buy.
That’s what this article is all about; I share the seven pieces of portrait photography equipment I highly recommend for beginners, and I give tips for how to use each item, too. By the time you’re done, you’ll have a clear list of portrait essentials (and you’ll be ready to nail your next portrait photoshoot!).
Let’s dive right in.
1. A standard zoom lens
Every portrait photographer should have a standard zoom lens in their bag.
For one, standard zooms are amazingly versatile. At 35-50mm, you can shoot full- and half-body images; at 70mm, you can go for headshots; and at 24-35mm, you can capture unique environmental portraits and even group shots. A standard zoom will save you from changing lenses every time you switch gears during a portrait session, and if you’re photographing families, you can do solo shots and group shots without a lens change, too.
Note that you do need to be careful when shooting portraits on the wide end – you’ll start to get distortion, especially when photographing at close range. I like 35mm for full-body shots, but unless you’re after the creative effect of an ultra-wide, be very careful about going further.
My favorite zoom lenses stretch from 24-70mm on a full-frame camera (and 24-105mm is great, too), but if you use an APS-C camera, an 18-55mm kit lens covers comparable ground.
I do recommend you grab a zoom with the widest maximum aperture you can afford. An f/2.8 lens will allow you to capture beautiful background bokeh, whereas you’ll struggle to achieve the same effect at f/4, f/5.6, or f/6.3. (If you can’t afford an f/2.8 lens, that’s okay – you can still capture beautiful photos. You’ll just have to work a little harder!)
- Canon: 24-70mm f2.8 lens (checkout Sigmas 24-70mm too) – 24-105mm f4 lens.
- Nikon: 24-70mm f2.8 lens (checkout Sigmas 24-70mm too) – 24-120mm f4 lens.
- Sony: 24-70mm f2.8 lens (checkout Sigmas 24-70mm too) – 24-105mm f4 lens.
2. A telephoto zoom lens
Once you have your standard zoom, the next lens to consider is a telephoto zoom, such as a 70-200mm f/2.8.
Telephoto zooms are perfect for separating the subject from the background and creating stunning bokeh – in fact, I used a 70-200mm lens to capture this shot:
Notice how the subjects seem to pop off the blurry background? That’s thanks to a long focal length and a relatively wide aperture.
Telephoto zooms are also perfect for capturing headshots, as they allow you to photograph without getting uncomfortably close. And you can use them for creative portraits, too, by shooting through interesting leaves or flowers.
Recommended lenses include Sony’s newer 70-200mm f2.8 ii, Canon’s 70-200mm f2.8 iii and Nikons 70-200mm.
As with wide-angle zooms, wide-aperture telephoto lenses are better than narrow-aperture telephoto lenses. Unfortunately, wide-aperture telephoto lenses are often even more expensive than their wide-angle counterparts but you can always find 70-200mm f/4 lenses on the used market, especially if you buy older versions.
And a less-expensive alternative is a telephoto kit lens, like a 55-200mm f/4-5.6. Your optical quality will take a hit, but portraits often look good when a little bit soft, so that shouldn’t be a dealbreaker.
3. At least one fast prime
Fast prime lenses offer a single focal length, such as 50mm or 85mm. And they offer a stunningly wide aperture, such as f/1.8 or even f/1.2.
Happily, fast primes tend to be cheap (you can often grab an 85mm f/1.8 for a few hundred dollars, for instance), and they also tend to offer crystal-clear optics. They’re less flexible than zooms, of course, which is why I do recommend you carry the two lens types mentioned above – but primes certainly have their place.
When starting out, you don’t need to go crazy on the prime lenses. One 85mm lens is a good pick, as you can use it for full-body, half-body, and even headshots. Feel free to go for the f/1.8 versions, as they offer beautiful background blur, plus you can easily handhold in low light (but if you’re very serious about your portraiture shooting and you require top-notch bokeh and/or incredible low-light prowess, consider the f/1.4 or f/1.2 versions, as well).
A 50mm f/1.8 is another, cheaper option, and the wider focal length helps when shooting in enclosed spaces (e.g., a small studio), so it’s worth considering, too.
By the way, you might be wondering:
When should I use my primes? And when should I use my zooms?
For fast-paced shoots (e.g., a family session with plenty of ground to cover), your zooms will keep the flow going and provide compositional versatility. But if you’re doing a slower session, start with your standard zoom, then feel free to swap it out for your prime once you have a few nice shots!
4. A tripod
If you photograph subjects in a studio – especially with strobes – a tripod may not be strictly necessary, as you’ll have complete control over the lighting and can boost the power as required. It’s still useful to have, though, as you can use it to hold your camera while you adjust lights, add props, and so on.
And if you do portraits in natural light, a tripod is hugely helpful; you can prevent any camera movement and capture far sharper shots in low light.
For studio portraits, you don’t need to invest in a sturdy-yet-portable tripod. As long as your tripod is stable, even if it’s super heavy, it’ll do the job. If you’re an outdoor portrait shooter, however, you’ll want to get a tripod that can hold your entire rig and can be transported from location to location without issue. I highly recommend a carbon fiber model, and while such tripods are more expensive, they’ll save you a lot of pain and frustration down the line.
5. An artificial light source
If you capture portraits with natural light, you can technically ignore this section. However, I encourage all portrait photographers to learn to use artificial light; it’s a real gamechanger and will make you a far more flexible shooter.
Thanks to artificial lighting, you can photograph at any time of the day under any lighting conditions, and you won’t be dependent on sunlight, the season, or the weather.
One piece of advice, though: Don’t use your on-camera flash. Instead, purchase an off-camera flash (i.e., a speedlight) to get started. And once you get more serious, consider grabbing some additional speedlights, some light stands, and even some studio strobes.
Will artificial lighting make your portrait photography kit less portable? Probably, though you can create a relatively portable lighting setup with a few light stands and speedlights. Bear in mind that you don’t need to use artificial lighting all the time; sometimes, you can shoot outside in good light, or you can work with a mixture of artificial and natural light.
I captured all of these images in the studio using carefully positioned artificial lighting:
6. Modifiers for your lights
If you do decide to go the artificial lighting route, then it’s absolutely crucial to pair your speedlights and studio strobes with modifiers.
What do modifiers do? They help direct the light, and they also change the quality. Most portrait photographers use modifiers to take the edge off their bare strobes (i.e., soften the effect), which is where modifiers such as softboxes will come in handy. And certain modifiers, such as snoots, will concentrate the light, while others, such as umbrellas, will throw it in every direction.
For more fashion-focused portraits, a beauty dish is worth considering. And I highly recommend you look into different modifier options before buying – there are stripboxes, octaboxes, snoots, scrims, and so much more.
That said, if you’re struggling to decide what modifier to get, I’d suggest a simple softbox of decent size. They’re pretty versatile, plus they’ll get you that nice, diffused, window-lit look. Over time, you can accumulate a set of modifiers for different occasions (and fortunately, modifiers are quite cheap, so you don’t need to worry about breaking the bank).
7. A 5-in-1 reflector
Whether you use natural or artificial lighting, reflectors are an absolutely essential piece of portrait photography equipment.
Reflectors let you subtly modify the light until your portraits look perfect. For instance, you can reflect light under your subject’s chin to get rid of dark shadows. You can reflect backlit sun for a beautiful look.
And because 5-in-1 reflectors come with several different colors, you can capture creative effects – such as a golden portrait at sunset, a silvery portrait around midday, and so on.
Finally, since reflectors are so portable, you can literally carry your 5-in-1 set everywhere. And if you’re a studio photographer, you’ll appreciate a reflector, too, as you can place it opposite your light sources to soften any shadows.
(Pro tip: Studio photographers, if you have space, it’s a good idea to have one large reflector propped up on a stand in your studio – here, lockable caster wheels come in handy!)
Essential portrait photography gear: final words
Now that you’ve finished this article, you’re ready to compile your portrait photography kit – and take some stunning shots of your own.
Don’t skimp on lenses, and don’t skimp on portrait accessories, either. Of course, you don’t need to get all of these items at once, but I do recommend you keep them in mind and acquire them as soon as possible.
Now over to you:
What portrait photography equipment from this list do you plan to buy? Do you have any additional equipment that you believe is essential? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- Essential Portrait Photography Gear You Need When Starting Out
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES